BLONDE ON BONDS Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

After a period of
doubt, their soulful, self-titled third album finds them returning, regrouping
and reinventing themselves.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

“Hold on,” Grace Potter tells her interviewer abruptly,
before yelling to the unexpected guest at her door. “I’m doing an interview. I’ll talk to you in a little bit.”

 

Message delivered, she returns to the business at hand. “My
dad just knocked on the door,” she explains. “He has a bucket of ash that he’s
going to put out on the trail. It’s very slippery outside our house right now.
He’s surprised, because I’m never on the phone.”

 

That momentary exchange says a lot about Grace Potter, who,
up until recently, was simply a small town girl testing her fortunes at the
helm of a college combo, dubbed the Nocturnals due to their forced late night
rehearsal schedule. At the time she was a budding singer hoping to transform a
homegrown sound mined from rustic influences like Dylan, the Band, Neil Young
and other roots-relevant predecessors into something that she and her comrades
could call their own.

 

“That’s what I grew up listening too,” Potter confides,
referencing her dad who presumably is out in the yard emptying the contents of
his pail on her pathway. “My parents had impeccable taste in music and that was
my idea of what was hip, so I’m glad it comes through. In fact, I never knew
Bob Dylan was such a popular artist early on because I kind of discovered him
around Nashville Skyline.  So to me Nashville
Skyline
was his natural voice. One of my biggest eye-opening moments was –
here, she goes into a mock Dylan drawl – that
this guy really sang like this
. It was really wild for me. That kind of
taught me that you can reinvent yourself and you can change.” She then proceeds
to lay out a roll call of early influences: “The Band, the Allman Brothers,
Spooky Tooth, Steeleye Span… a lot of stuff around that time, like King
Crimson, Jethro Tull… “

 

Admittedly, it’s a surprisingly eclectic list, especially
coming from the lips of one who was presumably too young to have even been born
around the era being referenced, specifically, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

 

“Me and my dad bonded over music when I was going through my
adolescent phase,” Potter explains. “It was great to sit down and realize I
didn’t have to go to the record store to pick up the cool stuff. I was the cool
kid in class who would make these really obscure mix tapes and my classmates
would go ‘Jethro Who?’ My folks headed up this cool little production company
called Dream On Productions – it was a precursor to MTV — so they could write
off their record purchases. So I had a lot of that visual/musical experience
going on as a kid, and it certainly carried over because now I visualize my
songs, and I think about all my songs as movies.”

 

She chuckles, sensing she’s starting to sound a bit
dramatic.

 

“But maybe that’s just my ego.”

 

Ego seems out of sync for a small town girl who still lives
near her parents in the idyllic environs of the Madrigal Valley situated in the
center of Vermont. “This is perfect terrain this time of year,” she said of the
January winter at the time when Blurt spoke with her. “There’s not as many tourists and it’s a nice time of year for
me to be anonymous. It’s a small town, but I can go about my daily schedule and
not be, you know, scared off by the crowds. 
There are three ski areas that surround the valley that I live in… it’s
very artist heavy. And very snow bunny heavy on the mountain. It’s gorgeous.”

 

So gorgeous apparently that Potter’s never left. And while
that hardly befits the image of an emerging rock star whose vocal reach falls
midway between, say, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Bramlett, she does admit to one
diva-esque indulgence. “My biological clock is set to a different setting than
most people,” she concedes. “I sleep ridiculously late. I’m a very late sleeper. By the time I wake
up, the sun is setting. The night time is the right time, what I can say?”

 

Potter claims she’s been singing since she was a toddler,
when she would trade vocals with her cousin in her grandparents’ backyard. “My
grandparents would be sitting in the hammocks and we would be singing in each
other’s faces and pretending we were having a singing competition for the
world’s greatest singer. My cousin has a great voice but I was loud, like in
the ‘Annie’ category. I was aggressive from the get-go, but I went through a
phase of being really quiet. I was a hushed vocalist when Matt (Burr), our
original drummer, an original Nocturnal, first saw me singing Joni Mitchell and
Neil Young songs in a café with a piano and kind of crying into my drink. That
was my hushed phase, kind of post-9/11, when everybody wanted that sort of
soothing sound, like the Norah Jones kind of thing… and it felt like the right
thing to do, to sing this subtle careful music. But after the band formed and
we got amplifiers, that’s when I started singing loud again because I had to
sing over everybody.  However, I first
sang that way as a kid and later during my adolescent years, my early college
years, and then it went away again. Eventually though, I just became the loud
grave digger I’ve always been.”

 

The Nocturnals’ first two albums – Nothing But the Water (2005) and This Is Somewhere (2007) – took their cue from the rustic
influences bestowed by The Band, Neil Young, and the more homegrown elements
that populated her parent’s record library. “We were digging into the roots and
taking the time-tested examples,” she recalls. “When we were recording our
first couple of records, we would sit there with our Band and Neil Young
records and play them to our engineer, and say, ‘Make it sound as much like
this as possible.’ Now we don’t think in those terms anymore. It’s about
inventing something that’s completely fresh and untouched. It’s a natural
progression, although it feels so exciting. I know every artist goes through
it, but to me, you don’t know until you get there, because if you asked me four
years ago I would say, ‘Oh no, I’m going to write songs from the perspective of
a 55 year old woman forever because that’s what works for me and I like playing
that character and blah, blah, blah.’ 
But I played that character and that was one thing and this is another,
and I’ve lived a little bit of life now and I have my own stories to tell.”

 

Indeed, that’s evident in their new album, aptly self-titled
as if to reflect the band’s rebirth. Working with a new producer, Mark Batson
(Dr. Dre, Dave Matthews Band, Alicia Keys, Eminem etc.), the Nocturnals opted
to abruptly shift their stance. Consequently, Potter channels her inner Joplin,
while the newly expanded Nocturnals morph from a rural communal aggregate into
a combo fueled by soulful bluster. Always a powerhouse in terms of her gritty
delivery, Potter ups the ante in terms of crafting a more powerful presence,
wailing away on sinewy, soulful manifestos like “Paris,” “Oasis,” “Only Love”
and “One Short Night” while the rest of the outfit responds with an equally
emphatic delivery, rummaging through 13 tracks with a wail and wallop that’s
bound to make longtime listeners take notice.

 

For her part, Potter tends to agree with that
assessment.  “Sure. Absolutely. We took
so many risks, and we did a couple of things that made us say, ‘What were we
doing? We really went out there!’ I do hope those risks pay off.”

 

The evolution of Grace
Potter and the Nocturnals
was initially precipitated by the material, which
first found Potter writing on her own, and then, at her record label’s urging,
in tandem with Batson.  It also followed the
departure of longtime bassist Bryan Dondero, which nearly had a devastating
affect of the group’s psyche.  “Right
around the time that Bryan left the band, I was working in L.A., working on
songs and feeling very aimless, aimless in terms of the record – when it was
going to happen, how it was going to happen and who was going to play on it? I
was thinking like, do I even have a band?”

 

“So Mark and I started writing songs in the midst of all
that. It was a very short time that we sat writing together, but we turned out
14 songs. We would write two or three a day. We were insanely prolific and I
had never co-written in my life with anybody, so I was nervous, I was worried,
I didn’t want to give away that piece of myself as a really capable songwriter,
like a piece of my own skin. But within five minutes, we had this completely
symbiotic work sense, so it was really perfect. He’s done a lot of co-writing
but he’s been perceived mainly as a producer and at first our relationship was
purely songwriting for four months or so, through the spring and into the
summer.”

 

Meanwhile, the singer had also accepted an offer to work
with famed producer (and Americana guru) T Bone Burnett
. Recalls Potter, “It
seemed like a great time for me to jump on an amazing opportunity to work with
a legend and his amazing team of studio musicians – Jim Keltner, Mark Ribot and
Dennis Crouch.” She goes on to describe the ensuing sessions as “magical. It
was like taking a masters class in studio recording. But, as the sessions
developed, it became clear that this project was more of a solo album. I’m
incredibly blessed to have worked with T Bone and I feel a lifelong connection
to him. It’s a rare privilege to do a project like that, and I look forward to
a time when I can share it with the world.”

 

Shortly thereafter, the Nocturnals drafted two new members –
Catherine Popper on bass, replacing the departed Dondero, and Benny Yuro, who
started sharing guitar duties with original recruit Scott Tournet. This set the
stage for recording with Batson, for as Potter explains, “Later in the summer
when I started touring with the new lineup, my label saw some video of us at
Bonnaroo, and I got a call the next week saying, ‘We need to capture this
energy. You guys wanna go into the studio and bang out a few demos?’ Then the
demos quickly materialized into a full-length record with Mark.”

 

Adds Potter, “I think the real change was the new band
members. It was a slow epiphany. It certainly wasn’t a moment. These two new
musicians came into the picture and I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going
to change with that. I think that a lot of bands go through that. You lose a
member, you add a member, you add a new sound, you add a number – it went from
a four-piece band to a five-piece band. That one addition changed so much about
what we do and what kind of music we’re playing and the epiphany was the really
fresh sound.  It was a new
direction.  Over time, over the years,
you keep on adding people, but you can only capture the lightning in a bottle
once ever, and it was just really exciting and magical to be able to do that
with these guys.

 

“When Bryan left, it was a somewhat tricky and emotional
time in the band’s career,” Potter continues. “Not to say the band fell apart,
or that me and Scott and Matt said, ‘Okay, we’re going to disband and there’s
not going to be a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals,’ but within the band, it
felt very much like a hole in the entire future of our group, so the idea of
replacing Bryan was not in our mind at the time. Yet, we had some gigs we were
already committed to and so we needed to fill in for him for those shows and
for a VH1 Woodstock movie documentary (Woodstock:
Then and Now
, for which the group recorded Jefferson Airplane’s “White
Rabbit,” which later showed up in the Alice
in Wonderland
soundtrack as well). So the whole changeover in the band was
kind of an emotional time and it was a time of not knowing what was going to
happen next.  And what happened next was
Catherine Popper was looking for a job and it was either us or Led Zeppelin (laughs), so she said ‘I’ll come in and
do a quick audition and whatever.’ Benny had already been in rock bands that
had played with us, so he already knew our songs. And we just pulled it
together for that VH1 movie and at the end of the session, we all just looked
at each other and said, ‘My God, we have a band!’  As we got going and the band formed,
everything kind of happened at once and there was this kind of sliding scale of
experiences where you can hear it in the lyrics of the songs – it changed from
‘Tiny Lights,’ which was one of the first songs we wrote, to ‘Hot Summer
Night,’ which was one of the last songs we wrote. Things were really heating up
and we breezed through the record.”

 

Still, for all the factors that transpired simultaneously,
Potter says the elements fell in place in a completely organic manner. “It was
just completely natural and it all just sort of happened,” she maintains. “I’m
telling you, some of these songs fell out of us so quickly like I’ve never seen
or ever hope to be able to see again. The demo for the song ‘Oasis’ was a
reggae song or a hip-hop thing, and we thought, ‘How is this going to make
sense to our fans that have heard us for years?’  Benny and Scott had this guitar piece going
that was so endearing and wonderful, and all of a sudden, the hook just formed
and the song took shape and we were ready to record it. And every single song
on this album was the second or third take at the very least. ‘White Rabbit’ we
recorded in the same session and that was the first take. There were a lot of
first takes on this record. The word synergy can’t be overused to describe what
was happening.  In fact, I don’t know if
we went into the studio now if it would come out just the same.”

 

Given this change in m.o., Potter is the first to admit that
her band has never fit comfortably into a single narrow divide.  Elements of country rock, R&B, Americana
and a jam band instinct have all been tossed out to describe the group in the
past. In fact, for many bands, the inability to be narrow cast would likely be
considered a handicap, especially when attempting to market them to a specific
audience. 

 

“I think that’s a blessing,” Potter counters. “It’s tricky
because we’re that gray area band. We don’t fit into a perfect sock – ‘Oh, this
is a Coachella band or this is a band that we could put on MTV, or let’s have
them cut a video for Japan and have them tour over there forever.’ There’s no
simple way to put us and there’s so much possibility, but in terms of being a
crossover act, all those possibilities can become mind-boggling and you don’t
know what path to choose. So that’s been the case over the past seven years.
You just follow whatever path it’s going to be and see what happens. But I
never look back and wonder what would have happened. Certainly every step has
become more fundamental in where we eventually wound up.”

 

While the trajectory may be tricky, Potter has no doubt as
to their goals. “I plan on world domination myself,” she declares without
hesitation. “I have utter faith. I’d like to start with Europe because I always
wanted to tour over there and travel. I lived in Spain – when my parents
couldn’t handle me anymore they just said, ‘God, put her on a plane and put her
somewhere away from us.’ So Europe is a big one for me. I’d love to get to
Asia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland and we did a mini tour over there. We
played St. Patrick’s Day week and we had a great time.”

 

Regardless of future destinations, Potter insists she’s
pleased with the progress so far.  “I
grew up an artist’s kid and my parents raised me right and I feel really,
really lucky to be coming from that place. It’s much harder when you’ve had to
fight against the current. My folks have been incredibly supportive of me since
the beginning, so that’s where the pride comes from.”

 

 

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